A French Olive Oil Renaissance

Nyons --- Like many of the simplest, purest things in life, we as humans make much of a complication of it. Olive oil is like that. If you think of olive oil as nothing more than the pressed juice of fresh fruit - think orange juice - then you understand about all there is to know about olive oil.

Well , not exactly. But thanks to a renewed interest in olive oil, spurred by greater knowledge of its health benefits as well as its gastronomic pleasures, everyone wants to know more about olive oil, and taste more of it. While France produces the tiniest amount of oil in the world (less than 2 percent) most of it today is of very high quality. So high that the nation now boasts of five regions that are honored with the strict appellation d'origine controlée label. The AOC, as for wine, cheese, and many other agricultural products, is a guarantee that the oil from the five southern regions comes from a specific variety of olive, from a specific geographic region, follows laws of density of planting, appropriate cultivation methods, dates of harvesting, even methods of harvesting.

So here is a simple guideline to the five regions, with tasting notes and an explanation of why the oils all taste distinctly different. Remember that there are not green olive trees or black olive trees. All varieties of olives begin life as small green fruit, and will eventually turn ripe, and black, if allowed to ripen on the tree. By tradition as well as taste, some varieties of olives are best for pressing while green and still quite bitter, while other varieties are shown to best advantage when allowed to ripen, even turn black and wrinkled, on the tree.

Here are results of a recent tasting of France's 5 AOC olive oils, with a sample of one oil from each region.

1. AOC Huile d'Olive de Nyons (AOC since 1994)
Nyonsolive, Nyons. Tel: 04 75 26 95 00.
All from Tanche variety of olives, milder, extracted, black ripe wrinkled olives so oil more yellow in color, aromas of Granny Smith apples, hazelnuts and dried fruits, very even, little bitterness, neutral but pleasantly so, like a soft breeze, harmonious, can really taste the RIPE black olive, an all-purpose oil, when you don't want the oil flavors to overwhelm a dish. This is as far north as olives grow in the world.

2. AOC Huile d'Olive de Nice (AOC since 2001)
L'Olivade Cooperative Oleicole de Nice Tel: 04 93 79 24 95.
All from the Cailletier variety of olives, black, ripe, very strong aromas, a very mild bitterness, distinctive flavor of raw almonds, a raw oil, with aromas of ripe apples and anise.

3. AOC Huile d'Olive de Les Baux de Provence (AOC since 1999).
Moulin Jean-Marie Cornille, 13520 Mausanne les Alpilles. Tel: 04 90 54 32 37.
Also now available on line, at www.moulin-cornille.com
Pressed from five varieties of olives: I like to call this the Châteauneuf-du-Pape of oils, since Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be made with 13 varieties of grapes, the Les Baux oil must use five distinct varieties of olives, making for a more complex oil than those pressed from a single variety. Complex, herbaceous, peppery, pleasant bitterness, great with cooked artichokes.

4. AOC Huile d'Olive Aix en Provence (AOC since 1999)
Château Virant, Lancon de Provence, Tel: 04 90 42 44 47.
3 varieties of olives, usually 80% Aglandau variety.
Similar to the oils from Les Baux, green to purple, peppery nose, a touch of bitterness, good over grilled vegetables, flavors of raw artichokes, good with strong fish such as rouget or mackerel.

5. AOC Huile d'Olive Alpes de Haute Provence (AOC since 1999)
Moulin d'Olivette, 04100 Manosque, Tel: 04 93 72 00 99.
All made of Aglandau variety of olives, picked purple.
Floral, heavily perfumed, pungent, not pepper, I love it! Sophisticated, smooth, taste of unripe banana, cook for cold meats, marinades, red peppers.